Poetry, Chapter 1

Let’s talk about reframing.

Poetry might be overused as a term.  It seems to mean everything from “beautiful” to “meaningless”, plus the undefinable literary form of poetry which then gives rise to its prose definition…  The point is, ask most people and they won’t be able to tell you exactly what poetry is.  Of course there’s the dictionary definition— but how do you pin down poetry?  How do you pin down what’s poetic and what’s not, and what makes a good poem different from a bad one, and what lets some writers get away without capitalizing entire paragraphs while other writers get trashed for it?

I’m not going to try.

Well, I lie.  I am going to try.  But I’ll tell you now, poetry is so much more than I can ever tell you it should be.  If you think I’m wrong, good.  I’m wrong.  Give me a better definition.

Poetry, to me, is a reframing of one situation into terms of another.  It takes the present— yours, the author’s, the character’s— and reimagines it in terms of something completely unconnected, or refocuses it on the tiniest possible detail, or steps back to look at the picture as a whole.  It’s a reframing from the way we approached the situation.

Chicago happened slowly, like a migraine.
(Neil Gaiman, American Gods, GoodReads)

The above stuck out to me from the many pages of the book in which it was couched.  It’s poetic, it’s something that makes you stop and think, “Huh.  Never thought of it that way.”  The characters are on a car trip, and, well, yes— Chicago would arrive pretty slowly if you’re driving toward it for a long time.

But why this exact phrasing?  It happened “like a migraine”.  That’s structured as a simple simile, but it’s a strange one.  Why not “like a cloud on the horizon”?  Why say Chicago “happened”, instead of “arrived” or “grew closer”?  (I’m intentionally being dull here.  We all know Gaiman’s sentence is probably the best version of that sentence we could ever get.)  What makes this sentence poetic?

I believe it’s the explanation of one concept by the introduction of something completely different.  It sheds new light on the subject and makes a person think, but simultaneously sparks the exact reaction the writer planned to spark.  In other words, it’s showing, not telling, but showing so creatively and elegantly that we can’t help but call it “beautiful” or “poetic”.

But this is just a single aspect of poetry (reframing a situation via simile).  Poetry is obviously more than just that.  We could discuss a verb intriguingly applied to a cloud, or understatement as a tool.  How about another style of poetry that I mentioned, refocusing on a tiny detail?  Maggie Stiefvater has something to say about that:

So remember, it’s not that the parking lot is lonely. It’s that it’s empty, and there’s one seagull picking at an abandoned bag of cold French Fries next to an old Escort with a dent in the door and a dirty, crumpled battle of the bands poster.

(Maggie Stiefvater, Dissecting Pages for Mood)

Or how about the final one I mentioned, zooming out to look at the big picture?  Here’s some Leo Tolstoy:

There was nothing over him now except the sky—the lofty sky, not clear, but still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds slowly creeping across it. “How quiet, calm, and solemn, not at all like when I was running,” thought Prince Andrei, “not like when we were running, shouting, and fighting; not at all like when the Frenchman and the artillerist, with angry and frightened faces, were pulling at the swab—it’s quite different the way the clouds creep across this lofty, infinite sky. How is it I haven’t seen this lofty sky before? And how happy I am that I’ve finally come to know it. Yes! everything is empty, everything is a deception, except this infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing except that. But there is not even that, there is nothing except silence, tranquility. And thank God! …”

(Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Schmoop)

And this, also from War and Peace:

Looking down over the railing, Prince Nesvitsky saw the swift, noisy, low waves of the Enns, which, merging, rippling, and swirling around the pilings of the bridge, drove on one after the other. Looking at the bridge, he saw the same monotonous living waves of soldiers, shoulder braids, shakos with dustcovers, packs, bayonets, long muskets, and under the shakos faces with wide cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and carefree, weary faces, and feet moving over the sticky mud that covered the planks of the bridge. Occasionally, amidst the monotonous waves of soldiers, like a spray of white foam on the waves of the Enns, an officer pushed his way through, in a cape, with his physiognomy distinct from the soldiers’; occasionally, like a chip of wood swirled along by the river, a dismounted hussar, an orderly, or a local inhabitant was borne across the bridge by the waves of infantry; occasionally, like a log floating down the river, a company’s or an officer’s cart floated across the bridge, surrounded on all sides, loaded to the top, and covered with leather.

(Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Schmoop)

Of course, you could argue that the two above quotes are not actually a zooming out at all, but a focus in on the clouds, or the river, or the artillerist, or the column of men, or the officer in his cape, or Prince Andrei, or Prince Nesvitsky— and within the many facets of the second quote, a likening to the motion of a river.  And you’d be correct.  I think this final quote exhibits all three techniques in one.

But they’re all reframings.  The Maggie Stiefvater quote takes an empty parking lot and turns it into a seagull and a dented car, things we don’t associate with every lonely parking lot— but if we hear about those things, we can picture it all the better.  The first War and Peace quote is, I believe, moments after the narrator got either stabbed or blown up or had something violent happen to him while he was fighting the French, and he dramatically sets it all aside for a breath of tranquility.   The final War and Peace moment is possibly the most blatant reframe, where the soldiers become the river, a cart becomes a log, an officer becomes a spray of white foam.

Poetry is reframing.  The picture twists and changes into something completely different in our minds, whether through simile, detail, or generalization.

Further Reading:

  • Any of the books I quoted or mentioned in this post are worth the time.
  • If you’d like to browse through some literary devices, feel free.

Exercises:

  • Pick one of your favorite books or movies.  Find a moment that strikes you as poetic.  What techniques does the author or director use in that moment?  What kind of words, what kind of rhythm, what kind of imagery?
  • Write something poetic.  It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to reframe something.  Try to reframe in a way that hasn’t been done before.
  • Describe your house by picking on a single detail.  Now describe it by generalizing.  Now describe it by simile.  See if you can blend all three.
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How to Write Epic Poetry

John Milton is as good as his writing.

He grew up wanting to write poetry, but held off on writing anything spectacularly huge until later in his life.  When he had succeeded in his career, had a family, and gone blind, he finally decided to write some epic poetry, the kind he always knew he could write.  He dictated Paradise Lost, and we still praise him for it.

But was it some act of genius?  Was it a lightning-strike of a Muse, a moment of inspiration unparalleled before and since?  Of course not.  He spent time on this thing.  He thought long and hard about how he was going to write it, who the characters were, and what story he wanted to tell.  He weighed the options of language— should he write it in English, or a more epic language of Greek or Latin?  (He was fluent in all three, and probably several more.)  Should it rhyme?  All of these deep, difficult questions plagued him, but he knocked them down one by one until he could produce the masterpiece we have today.

My point?  There’s a process, my friends, to writing epic poetry.  Homer, Virgil, Milton, all created amazing, lasting works— and you can too. Continue reading “How to Write Epic Poetry”

Writing as a Performance Art

Lately I’ve been fascinated by the concept of oral storytelling.

About a month or two ago, a friend sent me a link to some spoken word poetry.  It was fantastic.  The words themselves were beautiful, but the passion and skill of the performers made it better.  Around the same time, I listened to Neil Gaiman’s Worldbuilders readings of Jabberwocky and Green Eggs and Ham.  Anyone can read those stories, but he took it out of monotonous rhythm and made it interesting.  Plus, the accent.  Then I started on epic poetry.

If you’re at a party and they start passing around the Homer, just say no.

Last week, I found myself with the smudgy draft of a short epic poem, at nearly midnight.  It’s the short story equivalent of a real epic poem, and considering the inherent structure I’ve dissected and essayed upon since then, it’s doesn’t quite fall into all the parameters of epic poetry— but it has the basics.  I wrote a short poem in unrhymed blank verse, set in my current storyworld, about a mythic hero’s last sacrifice.  No, it doesn’t invoke the Muse.  No, it doesn’t begin in medias res.  Unfortunately, I skimped on both allegory and epic simile, because I haven’t created enough of this world to be that academic, and I still had a bit of a purple prose filter on.  But still, I consider it epic.

Probably the biggest reason is this: it’s written to be performed. Continue reading “Writing as a Performance Art”

How to Find the Purpose of a Scene

Why are  you writing?

Well, obviously because I had a traumatic experience when I was young with a pair of wild gophers, and ever since words have flown from my pen even when it’s capped (it’s rather creepy, actually), so I write as catharsis and to keep quiet the horrible gopher demons inside.

Ah… no.  That’s not what I mean.  When you’re writing a story, or a scene, or even a paragraph, what are you trying to accomplish?  Why are you writing those words?

With delicate things like humor and poetry, knowing your purpose can be as important as knowing how to tell a joke or create beautiful imagery.  A joke without purpose is a joke in the wrong place— it doesn’t add to the emotion, it doesn’t forward the plot.  Instead, laughter will often destroy your hard-earned effect.  (This is why laughing at an insult is so effective.)  In the same way, imagery without purpose is useless.  Imagery that creates a specific emotion is poetry, and readers call it beautiful.  Imagery that isn’t attached to any sort of emotion has no reason to be there, and readers call it purple prose.  Without purpose, both humor and poetry are lost causes.

So how do you figure out your purpose for a scene?  Generally, my purpose in writing a scene is to tell a story, and to tell it well.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell me how to use poetry and humor.  Indeed, trying too hard destroys your ability to tell a story well, so stated this way, my purpose tells me nothing.  But it’s obvious, isn’t it?  Your purpose for any scene is going to change from scene to scene.  That way you don’t just fill a book with the same scene, told the same way, over and over.  As the needs of the story change, your purpose for the scene changes. Continue reading “How to Find the Purpose of a Scene”

The Right Word

Beautiful words are daunting.

Thankfully, beautiful words aren’t what we’re looking for.  Since beauty is subjective anyway, it’s difficult to find any one qualification that makes a beautiful word.  Think about it.  What makes something poetic?  Rhyming?  Not necessarily.  Syllables?  Nope.  Metaphors?  Not at all.  The only thing common to everything we call poetic is beauty, and that’s subjective.  What makes it poetic?

Simple answer: it’s the Right Word.

The Right Word could have many definitions and facets.  It could be exactly what it says, the correct word for a specific instance.  Or it could be a sentence, again perfect in that space.  Or it could be a paragraph, artfully short or vivid.  The Right Word is any selection of words that happens to be perfect for its situation.

Think about that for a moment.  Beautiful words are just perfect.  That’s it.  In order to write beautifully, you just have to write… perfectly. Continue reading “The Right Word”

On Writing Beautifully

Beautiful words are daunting.

Well, let me restate.  Trying to write beautiful words is daunting.  Beautiful words are beautiful— it’s the writing that gets hard.

Neil Gaiman.  Laini Taylor.  Patrick Rothfuss.  These people have beautiful words flowing from their pens on every page.  Maggie Stiefvater.  Cornelia Funke.  Miriam Joy.  (Yes, I’m including her, because, guys, her book.)  With all of these people, it seems like they roll out of bed spouting poetic prose.  Even their headdesks are eloquent.

Then there’s me, who’s still trying to get his protagonist’s head on straight.  I can maybe make one pretty word in a million, but a whole string of them?  That makes me headdesk, and that just emphasizes the point: I am not naturally poetic.  Those of you following the Teens Can Write, Too! blog might have noticed by now: John Hansen posted this exact complaint a couple days ago, about his own writing.  We have this in common, I guess.  Pretty writing is not natural to us.  In his post, John affirms that it’s okay to use Orwellian prose (prose as a clear window to the story, not distracting), and your personal style is always better than copying someone else’s.  He’s right.

Some of my favorite authors have very clear, Orwellian prose.  Brandon Sanderson is the most notable; several times on Writing Excuses, he’s claimed— even boasted of— his non-poetic style.  It’s true.  He tells his story plainly, without any of the frills or vivid descriptions that often characterize fantasies.  He writes what the story needs and no more, preferring to emphasize his setting, his plot, and his characters.  Personally, I set more store in those three things than the style of a book.  As long as the words are serviceable, I’m fine with them.  I’m not going to dock points for plain prose.

Especially at the beginning of a writer’s learning curve, I’d rather have a coherent plot and good characters than pages of brilliant writing.  Without purpose, those words are useless.  It’s more important for a learning writer to gain skill at creating and developing a story than at obsessing over the Right Word.

If I agree with everyone, why am I writing this? Continue reading “On Writing Beautifully”